Archive for the ‘ Historical ’ Category

REVIEW: “Sometimes in April” (film)

Sometimes in April

Directed by Raoul Peck
2005

CHALLENGE(S): Social Justice Challenge

Since I haven’t been so great at keeping up with the books I’m supposed to read for the Social Justice Challenge, this month I chose to watch a film instead. In retrospect, perhaps this was a mistake. I spent a large amount of the time (over 2 hours) blinking back tears and wondering what the hell is wrong with humanity.

Sometimes in April is the story of two brothers whose lives are torn apart by the Rwanda genocide of 1994. The narrative skips between their life in the present – one on trial for war crimes, the other struggling to move on with his life after the death of his family – and the events that led to their current state. I will tell you right now that those events were horrific. They were not skimped on. This is a movie with bodies piled in the street, with authorities who stand by and do nothing as people die, with no mercy whatever for any of those who played a role in the tragedy or for the viewers who are watching it unfold.

I don’t know that I can necessarily recommend it as far as entertainment goes. It’s incredibly heartbreaking, and who wants to put themselves through that if they don’t have to? But it was well done, well acted, and thoroughly terrifying. If you truly want to know what it was like in Rwanda, or indeed in any similar situation, then this is the film to see.

RATING:

REVIEW: “The Angel’s Cut” by Elizabeth Knox

The Angel’s Cut

Elizabeth Knox
Victoria University Press, 2009

CHALLENGE(S): GLBT Challenge, Year of the Historical Challenge

Finished 30 May 2010

It took me some time to finish this one, largely because I got sidetracked in the middle and didn’t really get back to it until yesterday. Fortunately, I took some notes as I was reading in the beginning, so I am able to put my thoughts on the novel into a more or less coherent order.

You probably already know that I consider the prequel to this book, The Vintner’s Luck, to be one of my favouritest books ever. It’s kind of hard to explain why I love it so very much, exactly, but I was aware from the beginning that it’s the sort of magic that can seldom be repeated. And I will say that, much as I love Elizabeth Knox’s writing, Angel didn’t grab me quite as much as Luck did. It involved different characters and a different, more modern world, not as magical, not as closely woven (though that may be the fault of the format; curse unnecessarily large print and childlike covers). However. While I may occasionally have felt as if I didn’t quite understand, couldn’t quite follow, didn’t quite love it as much as I wanted to – it always managed to pull me back in.

From the front flap:

Boomtown Los Angeles, 1929: Into a world of movie lots and speakeasies comes Xas, stunt flier and wingless angel, still nursing his broken heart, and determined only to go on living in the air. But there are forces that will keep him on the ground. Forces like Conrad Cole, movie director and aircraft designer, a glory-seeking king of the grand splash who is also a man sinking into his own sovereign darkness. And Fiona McLeod, film editor and maimed former actress, who sees something in Xas that no one has ever seen before, not even God, who made him, or Lucifer, the general he once followed – Lucifer, who has lost Xas once, but won’t let that be the end of it.

With Knox’s fiction, I find myself having to stop and think about the weight of things. She will introduce characters, words, symbols, and twine them all together so subtly that I frequently find myself asking, what is the import of this? What does it mean? I have to be in literary analysis mode as well as readership mode, because things often have more than one meaning, and will usually contribute to an overall picture that is grander than you originally expect. This is something I’ve been trying to do with my own writing, so it’s wonderful to sink into her mind and try to follow the trails of inspiration; it gives me some sense of how to go about it myself.

At the same time, there were parts I found difficult – specifically, I kept confusing the two different characters named Conrad. One was Conrad Cole and the other was Conrad Crow, and I kept mistaking one for the other. I am guessing – since Knox is not the type of author to do something like this without reason – that this was perhaps an extension of the ideas that are entangled throughout the plot: that of imitations, echoes, originals and whether Heaven is such a wonderful place if it means leaving what makes us human behind. If that is the case, then it’s really quite brilliant, but I’m afraid the overall effect was one of confusion and irritation rather than a deeper insight into the novel’s themes.

Confusion aside, however, by the time I reached the end of the book I found I had folded down the corners of nearly as many pages as with Luck to mark passages I particularly loved. Every so often I would come across a piece of description or dialogue that hit me right in the heart and made me go, “Oh” in that way that you do when something stirs you deeply. One favourite passage:

Lucifer said, “Listen,” then was quiet as though they were both supposed to be listening to God.

No,” Xas said, refusing again.

“No,” Lucifer mimicked, and moved the angel back and forth above him as fathers fly their babies. Xas had always liked the look of that. He knew that parents only did it to make their babies laugh and-instinctively-to rock their infants’ senses of space, motion and position into health and capability. But to him it had always looked as if those parents were saying to Heaven: I hold this happiness between me and You, and, if they were, then that was instinct too, the instinct humans must have, despite all their ideas about a just and loving God, to preserve themselves from that God’s unloving love of perfection, His exacting beneficence.

— p.179

And its echo at the end of the novel:

She ran into his arms, giggling, still hot from sleep. Xas straightened and raised his daughter up into the air, over his head. She shrieked with happiness. Xas spun, flying her about, holding her up between himself and Heaven.

— p. 433

As well as the writing, I enjoyed the complexity of the new characters, particularly Flora, whose pain I could almost feel through the pages, and Captain Hintersee. Knox has a real gift for creating vibrant, living people out of words. Ultimately, however, I have mixed feelings about the novel. Vintner’s Luck was a book I could happily inhabit for the rest of my life; that I want to snuggle to my chest like a baby or a soft toy and love. I am still waiting for my opinion of Angel’s Cut to resolve itself. Perhaps it can best be summarised with a quote from the novel itself:

And then Xas thought, ‘I did love him, after all.’ Sure, he’d made a mistake with Cole, and had given his heart where he stood to lose it. But that was good, it was right, it was what should happen, it was the way faith worked, it was the proper use of love.

— p.444

Not easy, and perhaps not what I originally expected, but nevertheless a highly recommended read.

RATING:

CymLowell

REVIEW: “Maus” by Art Spiegelman

Maus: A Survivor’s Tale
I – My Father Bleeds History
II – …And Here My Troubles Began

Art Spiegelman
Penguin Books, 2003

[WINNER OF THE PULITZER PRIZE, 1992]

CHALLENGE(S): 451 Challenge, Book Awards Challenge, Graphic Novels Challenge, Year of the Historical Challenge

Finished 25 May 2010

I have read Holocaust stories before. Like most people, I am familiar with the Diary of Anne Frank, and I have both read and watched several World War II novels and movies. There is something about such large-scale, institutionalized violence that makes me go back to that period again and again, trying to make sense of it – to really feel what it must have been like, on both sides. As Spiegelman himself notes, it is not something that you can easily get your head around, and in general I have come away from such narratives without really understanding.

That is, until Maus.

I was rather reluctant to begin reading it at first. The art is not a style I find particularly prepossessing, and in the beginning it seemed off-putting; oddly childish for such a serious subject. Spiegelman has drawn each character as a particular animal loosely corresponding to their race – the Germans are cats, the Jews mice, the Poles pigs, the Americans dogs, and so on. All of the panels are in black and white, and to my mind they are over-filled, which made it slightly tiresome to read. However, this is personal preference, and once I began reading my lack of affection for the aesthetic style simply ceased to matter.

Maus is the semi-autobiographical memoir of one man’s survival, from pre-war Poland to the dreaded Auschwitz to his final escape at the end of the war. It is also the story of one man’s conflicted relationship with his father, his guilt for his own lack of understanding, and the way the effects of the Holocaust have echoed for generations. The first part of the book covers from the mid-1930s to the winter of 1944, during which time we follow Vladek Spiegelman as he meets and marries Art’s mother, gets called up to the army and becomes a prisoner of war. The second part begins after his escape from the POW camp, when he is betrayed to the Germans and taken, with his wife, to a concentration camp. The narrative switches neatly and seamlessly from past to present, following the story of how the book was created as well as the tale of Vladek’s experiences.

From the beginning, Vladek is not what you might call an easy man to like. He is difficult, suspicious, money-oriented and perhaps a little bit arrogant. He is also resourceful, brave and intelligent. His character is written large across every page, in many ways – as Art himself later remarks – a Jewish caricature, and he only grows more cantankerous as the book winds on. Art’s narrative here is unflinching: he writes with compassion, love, and impatience, a conflicted mixture that any adult child of aging parents can identify with. It is clear his father drives him crazy – it is also clear that he loves and wants to understand him. He is forced to act as both the loving son and the objective chronicler, and this dual role is very difficult to handle, particularly after his father’s death. Nevertheless, he incorporates his personal struggles into the story with an honesty that is as surprising as it is touching.

The memoir itself is vivid and nuanced. There is no attempt to set this up as merely a victim-and-oppressor narrative; we meet Jews who are not necessarily nice people, such as Vladek himself, and his millionaire father-in-law – good people who nevertheless come to horrible ends – Poles who will help them, but only for a price – even one German shell-shocked by the extent of the brutality he encounters in Birkenau. Nor does the Vladek survive through a mixture of luck and his own good nature, as is at times too common in fictionalized accounts: Vladek takes an active part in everything that happens to him, always aware, always looking for a way to escape and to survive. Those attributes which make him manipulative and annoying in the present are the same characteristics which kept him alive in the past, and thus the relation of his experiences serves as an explanation for the current story as well as a story in itself. In short, Art Spiegelman gives us the real story of his father’s life, unencumbered by attempts to simplify the conflict or diminish the pain it inflicted.

I am fairly confident that Maus will continue to haunt me for a long time to come. It is a compelling, amazing read that ends on a beautiful note which (I confess) almost brought me to tears. It is also painful, shocking and uncomfortable: like seeing all the negative parts of human nature on display in excruciating detail. In spite, or possibly because of, this, I found it deeply moving and difficult to put down. Highly recommended.

RATING:

CymLowell

REVIEW: “Saving Rafael” by Leslie Erika Wilson

Saving Rafael

Leslie Erika Wilson
Andersen Press, 2009

CHALLENGE(S): 2010 Challenge, Year of the Historical Challenge

Finished 14 May 2010

I have to confess, I love books like this. Forbidden romance with a side of (inter)national conflict? Yes please. That said, I wasn’t entirely impressed with Saving Rafael in the beginning. It is a Young Adult novel, and you can definitely tell: the writing makes no attempt at artistry, it’s just pure storytelling, and at times it felt a little simplistic for me. However, I persevered, and after a few chapters I found myself unwillingly charmed by the characters and completely hooked by the vivid setting.

The book revolves around the life of Jenny Friedemann and her family in World War II Germany. The Friedemanns are ordinary people, close friends with their neighbours, the Jakobys,  who happen to be Jewish. As the jaws of war close over the country, however, anti-Semitic laws and restrictions make it harder and harder for them to maintain that friendship without putting themselves in serious danger. Then, in the midst of bombing raids and rationing, Jenny and Rafael Jakoby fall in love, and suddenly things get much harder. We follow them as they struggle to survive Nazi Berlin and – eventually – the labour camps, without losing each other or their hope for freedom.

As I said, initially I didn’t think much of the writing and figured this would be a quick and forgettable read. I was wrong. I was soon swept up in the danger of it all, rooting for the young couple as they faced each new challenge together. The novel has a refreshing approach to sex – matter of fact without being explicit – which I thought wonderful to see in YA fiction, and builds a believable picture of Berlin in those troubled times. I did feel that a few of the characters’ motivations were rather thin, and the ending annoyed me as it was somewhat melodramatic (followed by a complete anticlimax), but aside from these minor issues, it was a great read. Highly recommended for young history lovers who enjoy a bit of romance!

RATING:

REVIEW: “The Color Purple” by Alice Walker

The Color Purple

[WINNER OF THE NATIONAL BOOK AWARD (among others), 1983]

Alice Walker
Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 2007

CHALLENGE(S): Banned Books Challenge, Book Awards Challenge, GLBT Challenge (mini), Read the Movie Challenge, Social Justice Challenge, Women Unbound Challenge, Year of the Historical Challenge

Finished 16 April 2010

I got an amazing amount of mileage out of this book. It won an Award (Book Awards Challenge), it is frequently banned (Banned Books Challenge), it features a lesbian relationship (GLBT Challenge) and domestic violence (Social Justice Challenge), was made into a movie (Books and Movies Challenge), it is deeply feminist (Women Unbound Challenge) and it’s set in the early 20th century (Year of the Historical Challenge). Whew!

On top of that, it is also a wonderful book that I highly recommend.

The story is told in epistolary style, as a series of letters from the main character – Celie – to God. When the book begins, Celie is being abused by her father, by whom she eventually has two children. Her mother is dead and the only person she can really rely on is her younger sister, Nettie, who is cleverer and prettier and her best friend in the world. When a man she refers to only as Mister ——- proposes to Nettie, however, Celie’s life takes a turn for the worse. Her father refuses to allow Nettie to leave, and offers Celie in her place; to their horror, Mister ——- agrees. Separated from her sister, Celie’s only consolation is her developing relationship with Shug Avery, a beautiful singer who is the mother of Mister’s children.

The storyline gets more complicated as the novel goes on, but I don’t want to spoil it for you so I’ll leave the synopsis there. I will say, however, that there is a lot of musing about God and the nature of love throughout the novel, which I very much enjoyed. It did tend to get a little philosophical towards the end of the book, which kind of jolted you out of the story a bit, and I agree with many other reviewers that the ending was just a little too neat for me to believe completely. However, these flaws aside, some of my favourite parts of the novel were when the characters started discussing the nature of God. For example:

God love all them feelings. That’s some of the best stuff God did. And when you know God loves ’em you enjoys ’em a lot more. You can just relax, go with everything that’s going, and praise God by liking what you like.

God don’t think it dirty? I ast.

Naw, she say. God made it. Listen, God love everything you love – and a mess of stuff you don’t. But more than anything else, God love admiration.

You saying God vain? I ast.

Naw, she say. Not vain, just wanting to share a good thing. I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it.

What it do when it pissed off? I ast.

Oh, make something else. People think pleasing God is all God care about. But any fool living in the world can see it always trying to please us back.

Yeah? I say.

Yeah, she say. It always making little surprises and springing them on us when us least expect.

— pp.176-177.

I really enjoyed the way the characters’ shifting affections and developing natures were used as a sounding board to illustrate the fluidity of love and its connection to God. I may not believe in God, but I did appreciate the warmth and strength with which Walker imbued the narrative, and her fantastic ability to give her characters a unique voice. Celie came across strongly throughout, as did her sister Nettie when we read some of her letters to her sister later in the novel. Even the secondary characters, from whom we do not hear directly, have a vibrant inner life that makes them leap off the page and into your imagination.

The book is also profoundly feminist. Its main theme is essentially humanity, both human beings and the quality of benevolence they show so infrequently towards one another, but it focuses particularly on the strength and resilience of the female characters, how they face the obstacles life places before them and deal with abuse from the men around them. That is not to say it is intrinsically “anti-male”, however; one of the most moving parts of the book, for me, is how Mister ——- and his son change and are changed by the strong women in their lives, eventually coming to see their true worth and nature beyond sex and domestic slavery. It is an optimistic book, at heart: it postulates that both sexes can, given time, come to a place of equality and respect, and love each other for who they are rather than who the world would have them be.

A deserving classic, and nowhere near as intimidating as I had originally imagined. If you haven’t read it yet, then I highly recommend that you do!

RATING:

REVIEW: “The Time of Singing” by Elizabeth Chadwick

The Time of Singing

Elizabeth Chadwick
Sphere, 2008

CHALLENGE(S): Royal Mistresses Challenge, Year of the Historical Challenge

Finished on 8 Apr 2010

I began this book at the beginning of March, but found it difficult to finish. Not only does it weigh in at a whopping 500 pages, but I found the story itself pretty dry and hard to maintain any interest in.

The back cover asserts that this is a story about a woman, Ida de Tosney, who has to make a heartbreaking sacrifice. The mistress of King Henry II and mother of his son, she longs to escape the court, and her chance comes when she meets and is attracted to Roger Bigod, son of a powerful Earl who comes to the court to settle a dispute with his half-brothers. In order to follow her heart and marry Roger, however, Ida must leave her young son behind.

In point of fact, however, this isn’t so much a story about Ida having to leave her son (which might have been interesting), but a story about Ida becoming Henry’s mistress, having a son, leaving her son, marrying Roger, having more children, pining for her son, and so on. Personally, I think the author was trying to include far too much in the novel, most of which was unnecessary and did not form any kind of interesting narrative. Perhaps this is simply a consequence of writing about real historical people and therefore having to conform to the facts, but I think it would have benefited from a sharper focus and a tighter plotline.

As far as the writing goes, Chadwick is technically competent, but I felt overall that the book lacked soul. She tells us a lot more than she shows, and is so intent on transferring her vision in exacting detail that she doesn’t allow the reader much room to interpret or interact with the story. I also felt the main characters were very much Mary Sues. They were both good people, who made the right choices, always had good intentions, and always did the right thing. Anyone who opposed them was necessarily a bad person by default, and/or described as physically ugly. The conflicts throughout the story felt manufactured and seemed decidedly trivial, even though they shouldn’t have. I got the sense that these were cardboard people being put through the motions; I simply could not sympathise with them. Although the story purported to cover their lives over several years, they didn’t change at all, while their children seemed merely background characters, added into the narrative whenever the author needed to remind us that time had passed, or to generate more ‘conflict’ for the main characters.

I will say that Chadwick has a clear grasp of the time period and a knack for period-appropriate dialogue without clunkiness or artificiality. I also appreciated the reconciliation with Roger’s half-brother near the end, and I am sorry we didn’t get to see more of his character arc as I found it very interesting. Otherwise, I’m afraid the story simply did not resonate for me at all, and had I not needed to read it as part of these challenges I wouldn’t have bothered finishing it. Not one I’d recommend.

RATING:

REVIEW: “The Vintner’s Luck” by Elizabeth Knox

The Vintner’s Luck

Elizabeth Knox
Victoria University Press, 1998

CHALLENGE(S): GLBT Challenge, Read the Movie Challenge, Year of the Historical Challenge

Finished 2 Feb 2010

Judging by the polarity of the reviews on this novel, either you love it or you hate it. Fortunately for me, I was in the “love” camp. More than love – I adore this book. I’ve never read another quite like it.

I want to start out by saying that it is possibly best to come to it with no expectations (so if you think the premise sounds interesting, I recommend you go and read it before reading any reviews). I got a copy from the library with no synopsis whatsoever, so I went into it almost completely blind: all I knew was that it was about this guy and an angel who fall in love.

But Luck is so, so much more than that. So much more.

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